Law enforcement takes down fraud platform used by thousands of criminals worldwide

A website used by more than 2,000 criminals to defraud victims worldwide has been infiltrated in the Metropolitan Police Service’s (MPS) latest joint operation to tackle large-scale online fraud.

Apr 18, 2024
By Paul Jacques

‘LabHost’, a service that was set up in 2021 by a criminal cyber network, enabled the creation of ‘phishing’ websites designed to trick victims into revealing personal information such as email addresses, passwords and bank details.

Users were able to log on and choose from existing sites or request bespoke pages replicating those of trusted brands, including banks, healthcare agencies and postal services.

Law enforcement from 19 countries took part in the operation to “severely disrupt one of the world’s largest phishing-as-a-service platform”.

It was coordinated at the international level by Europol.

Between Sunday April 14, and Wednesday April 17, a total of 37 suspects were arrested across the UK and by international law enforcement agencies.

This included arrests at both Manchester and Luton airports, as well as in Essex and London. Both in the UK and across the world more than 70 addresses were searched.

On Wednesday, LabHost and its linked fraudulent sites were disrupted and existing information was replaced with a message stating law enforcement has seized the services.

MPS Deputy Commissioner Dame Lynne Owens said: “You are more likely to be a victim of fraud than any other crime. In addition to the financial impact, it undermines the public’s confidence in the tools and technology they need to use in daily life. Our collective approach should ensure suspects feel that same level of distrust in their own criminal environment.

“Online fraudsters think they can act with impunity. They believe they can hide behind digital identities and platforms such as LabHost and have absolute confidence these sites are impenetrable by policing.

“But this operation and others over the last year show how law enforcement worldwide can, and will, come together with one another and private sector partners to dismantle international fraud networks at source. Our approach is to be more precise and targeted with a clear focus on those enabling online fraud to be carried out on an international scale.”

Work began in June 2022 after detectives received crucial intelligence about LabHost’s activity from the Cyber Defence Alliance. Once the scale of site and the linked fraud became clear the MPS’s Cyber Crime Unit joined forces with the National Crime Agency (NCA), City of London Police, Europol, Regional Organised Crime Units (ROCUs) across the country and other international police forces to take action.

Partners including Chainalysis, Intel 471, Microsoft, The Shadowserver Foundation and Trend Micro have also been at the centre of efforts to bring down this platform.

After being set up in 2021, LabHost quickly gained a criminal user base. By the beginning of 2024 more than 40,000 fraudulent sites had been created and 2,000 users were registered and paying a monthly subscription fee. Those subscribing to the ‘worldwide membership’, meaning they could target victims internationally, paid between £200 and £300 a month.

Since its creation, LabHost has received just under £1 million ($1,173,000) in payments from criminal users, many of whom MPS cybercrime detectives have now been able to identify.

“Some have been arrested in this week’s activity, others are now the focus of the ongoing investigation and have been warned we’re now working to track them down,” the force said.

“Shortly after the platform was disrupted, 800 users received a message telling them we know who they are and what they’ve been doing.

“We’ve shown them we know how much they’ve paid to LabHost, how many different sites they’ve accessed and how many lines of data they’ve received. Many of these individuals will remain the focus of investigation over the coming weeks and months.”

Detectives have so far established that just under 70,000 individual UK victims have entered their details into one of LabHost’s fraudulent sites. Globally, the service has obtained 480,000 card numbers, 64,000 PINs, as well as more than one million passwords used for websites and other online services. The total number of victims is likely to be even higher than already established and work is ongoing to identify and support as many as possible.

As of Thursday, (April 18) detectives have contacted up to 25,000 victims in the UK to tell them their data has been compromised.

The MPS said each and every one of those cases has been reported to both Action Fraud and UK Finance and every victim has been given advice about next steps and how to further protect their data.

A team of officers from the MPS is being established to provide personalised support to any victims who want further help and advice.

This operation is the latest in a series of activity by law enforcement to tackle significant, international online fraud, the MPS said.

Policing and partners continue to meet the growing threat through increasingly joined-up and sophisticated operations reaching across the globe.

In November 2022, the MPS arrested more than 130 suspects as part of Operation Elaborate. An estimated 200,000 victims were targeted by a scam stealing millions from the public via fake bank phone calls.

In February 2024, the NCA led Operation Cronos, which disrupted LockBit, the world’s most harmful cybercrime group. LockBit ransomware attacks targeted thousands of victims around the world and caused billions of pounds worth of damage.

The NCA infiltrated and took control of LockBit’s systems and dark website, compromising its entire operation. The agency obtained thousands of decryption keys to help victims recover encrypted data.

“Each operation focused on tackling a different type of online fraud, but at the heart was a platform being used by criminals who believed it was impenetrable by law enforcement,” said the MPS.

Adrian Searle, director of the National Economic Crime Centre (NECC) in the NCA, said: “Fraud is a terrible crime that impacts victims both financially and psychologically, undermining our collective trust in others and the online services on which we all rely.

“Together with cybercrime, it makes up around 50 per cent of all crime in England and Wales. Recognising the scale and nature of the threat, law enforcement are working evermore closely together, both here and overseas, to target the fraudsters and the technology they are exploiting.

“This operation again demonstrates that UK law enforcement has the capability and intent to identify, disrupt and completely compromise criminal services that are targeting the UK on an industrial scale.

“Alongside law enforcement action, we also encourage everyone to protect themselves and their online accounts, by creating strong, unique passwords, using two step verification if offered and activating their browser’s password manager. You can also visit the Stop Think Fraud website for lots of really useful advice.”

T/Commander Oliver Shaw from City of London Police added: “Collaborative operations like this are vitally important in the global fight against fraud and cybercrime.

“As the national lead force for fraud, we were able to support the operation by providing intelligence derived from reports made to Action Fraud. We continue to support the MPS, ROCUs and forces across the UK, to put cyber criminal fraudsters on the back foot.”

Amy Hogan-Burney, general manager, cybersecurity policy and protection at Microsoft, said: “Today’s action led by the UK’s MPS shows the impact we can have in the fight against cybercrime when we work together. We must continue to work together and leverage the immense skills of industry and governments to defeat these threats.”

A spokesperson for the Cyber Defence Alliance said the partnership with the Cyber Defence Alliance and law enforcement “continues to develop”.

“We have together, once again, been able to disrupt a major international criminal platform and prevented more people falling victim to these scams,” they said.

“In the digital world we live in, our alliance will continue to work with law enforcement to combat the growing threat of online fraud which impacts millions of people across the globe.”

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